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Sibyl Elyne Mitchell (1913–2002)

by Anne Latreille

Elyne Mitchell, by Alec Bolton, 1994

Elyne Mitchell, by Alec Bolton, 1994

National Library of Australia, 14469298

Elyne Mitchell, a city girl, moved to the country in 1935. She settled beneath the Snowy Mountains on the Upper Murray River, in an isolated spot outside Corryong, three hours' drive along a dirt road from Albury.

This was the start of a love affair. She described her new milieu, the rolling hills and floodplain of the river and the majestic mountains stretching away beyond it, as "the land that built my heart". It became her personal and professional source material throughout a long and productive life.

Mitchell, who has died aged 88, is best known as the author of The Silver Brumby (1958) and its associated series about wild horses that live far from humans in the secret valleys of the Snowy Mountains. These 13 books – published in more than 40 countries and many languages – take Australia to children around the world. Today's array of Silver Brumby Web sites, and the movie and TV series of the same name, testify to their enduring appeal.

But her legacy is also in her prowess as a skier and horsewoman, as an environmentalist and reasoned conservationist, and as doyenne of Towong Hill station, where she confronted drought and flood, helped with cattle, sheep and horses, and raised her family. In all these facets of a rich and varied life, as in her writing, she was an inspiration to many.

Born in Melbourne, Elyne was taken to Europe as a baby. World War I intervened and her father, General Sir Harry Chauvel, became one of Australia's most famous soldiers after commanding the Desert Mounted Corps of 34,000 horsemen and cameleers. This was said to be the largest force of mounted troops since the time of Alexander the Great.

The Battle of Beersheba, won by Chauvel's light-horsemen, has been called the last and greatest cavalry charge in history. One of Elyne's cousins, the pioneer film-maker Charles Chauvel, celebrated the victory in the film Forty Thousand Horsemen.

When Harry Chauvel returned to Australia he taught his daughter to ride. She rode in the city – the family settled in Melbourne's South Yarra – and galloped beside him on the beach at Point Lonsdale. Friends remember her as always being mad about horses.

When she was 20 she met Tom Mitchell, whose family had been among the first settlers along the Upper Murray and whose father had introduced Banjo Paterson to the legend that became The Man from Snowy River.

Tom, a lawyer educated at Cambridge and Harvard, was the Australian and New Zealand downhill skiing champion and said Elyne had better learn to ski. They married in 1935, honeymooning in New Zealand where there was late snow. They also skied in the Andes, the Rockies and the European Alps.

Elyne won the Canadian downhill skiing championship in 1938, then broke her leg on the slopes in Austria.

Through the late 1930s, she and Tom also explored the mountains in their own backyard, walking or riding to the snowline with skis on their shoulders and packs on their backs, sliding sealskins onto the skis for uphill traction, camping in cattlemen's huts, launching themselves exultantly down fields of snow and through eucalypt-lined valleys.

The Snowies then were a world apart, the preserve of cattlemen who grazed stock there in summer, of wild animals and a handful of hikers. There were no roads. Mitchell immortalised these trips in her first book, Australia's Alps, and has been known ever since for her advocacy of the area.

Tom joined the Australian Imperial Force at the beginning of World War II. He was posted missing after the fall of Singapore and surfaced 15 months later in Changi, where he saw out the war.

Meanwhile, Elyne was alone in their vast Federation-style house built on a hill that overlooks the spot where the Swampy Plains and Indi rivers join to form the Murray River. She helped the manager on the property, which had been badly burnt in the 1939 bushfires. She learnt to muster cattle and handle sheep but needed no help with the horse stud, which had produced champion racehorses such as Trafalgar. She hiked and skied in the mountains with friends.

And she wrote – a pastime she had engaged in since childhood. She told her daughter Honor that one must write something every day, never throwing anything away. This kept the loneliness at bay and allowed her to express the mystical bond she felt with the landscape.

Australia's Alps (1942) earned £1000 in royalties in its first year. Responding to a public appeal, Elyne donated this sum for the purchase of a fighter aircraft for the Battle of Midway. After the 1944 drought played havoc with the topsoil at Towong Hill, she wrote newspaper articles on soil conservation that led to Soil and Civilisation and Speak to the Earth (1945), among Australia's first environment-oriented books.

After Tom's return she was soon busy raising a family. Indi (named after the river) was born in 1946, then came Harry, Honor and, in 1955, John.

Elyne could ride around cattle with one baby on her saddle but after that, station work became difficult. Writing was her outlet and diversion – she would begin as early as 4am. Six publishers refused The Silver Brumby – written to engage Indi, who was bored with her governess's choice of books – before it was finally published in 1958. Since then it has not been out of print.

Mitchell published 33 books and was working on another at the time of her death. Her topics included her own life, the Snowies, the family history of both the Chauvels and the Mitchells, and the Australian Light Horse.

The Silver Brumby, one of the success stories of Australian literature, never won a book award because, it was said, the judges didn't like the fact that the horses talked.

In 1988, Mitchell received the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to literature and in 1993 she was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from Charles Sturt University.

In 1947, Tom joined state parliament as the Country Party member for Benambra. He held the seat for almost 30 years and was away from home a great deal, but family camping, canoeing and skiing outings were memorable. There was enthusiasm and appreciation for the sights – brumbies running free through the trees, cockatoos "flying like ghosts through the falling snowflakes" – and the children were taught a sense of responsibility for the land. The Corryong museum has a pram on skis donated by the couple.

Their son Harry died in a car accident in 1972. The desperate sadness Elyne felt was another challenge to be met.

"It is a marvellous life, terribly hard sometimes, but marvellous," she once said.

Tom's death in 1984 left her living with John at Towong Hill, where he is manager and where she continued to make a valued contribution.

The demands of her writing meant that she didn't play a very visible part in local affairs. Yet her presence was tangible, whether she was turning up on horseback to help the local stock agent herd a mob of cattle across a creek, or relaxing at Towong Hill, briefing a new MP about cattlemen on the High Plains.

She gave generous support to local institutions, and was honoured by a tribute weekend of festivities in the Snowy Mountains in 1999.

She believed life was about "achievement and service and doing something for your country".

Elyne was tall and lean and is remembered for her twinkling eyes, weather-seamed face, resounding laugh and sense of humour. She was a calm and thoughtful presence, especially around animals. She looked wonderful on horseback and on skis, carving perfect parallels down the slope – one of the joys of physical activity, she said, was learning good technique.

She was highly disciplined and followed her father's maxim of regular exercise, walking every day in winter and swimming in summer.

She skied until the age of 77 and played tennis into her 80s. She turned out for the annual cattle muster three years ago and rode on horseback until last year. It was only three months ago that she was last helped to sit on her palomino pony.

After surgery for a brain tumour, and increasingly frail, she moved to Corryong to live-in care. She was driven almost daily, however, to Towong Hill, where she would sit, talk to John, enjoy the company of Millie, her beloved border collie, and look at the mountains.

Described by many as a "special" person, she had, in an age of specialists, many interests literature, photography, history, the environment, Australian plants, bird-watching, travel, embroidery.

Elyne is survived by her children Indi Mitchell, Honor Auchinleck and John Mitchell and her sister Eve Maberly.

At her funeral, wreaths were laid by representatives of the First Armoured Regiment – she supported the Australian Army museum at Puckapunyal – and the 4/9 Prince of Wales Light Horse. Stockmen and two grandsons carried her coffin. Her pony, Thowra – named for the silver brumby – led the way to the cemetery.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Anne Latreille, 'Mitchell, Sibyl Elyne (1913–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 June 2024.

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